Contrary to popular media portrayals, the Middle East wasn’t always plagued by regressive fundamentalism. Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda were not popular in the region. They still aren’t. They have been violently imposed on people thanks in large part to the actions of the US, which has a longstanding pattern of backing religious fundamentalists to further its geopolitical ambitions.
The most significant chapter in the US-Islamist love affair came in the 1980s, when the US armed the Mujahedeen to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was the largest and longest running covert operation in US history. People like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Osama bin Laden associate whose claim to fame was splashing acid in the faces of unveiled schoolgirls at Kabul University, were the top recipients of CIA funds.
After the Soviet Union fell, the American-armed Mujahedeen groups morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Not long after that, Al Qaeda pulled off an attack that killed 3,000 people in New York City and its existence has been invoked to justify endless war and the curtailing of civil liberties ever since. (Afghanistan, where the US is still at war, remains the world’s second largest producer of refugees.)
The US played a similarly dirty game in Syria over the last six years. By knowingly arming rebel groups linked to Al Qaeda to weaken the Syrian government, the US created the world’s greatest refugee crisis since World War Two, which fueled the resurgent far right in the west and helped get Trump elected. I go into great detail about this topic in a recent piece I wrote for Alternet. Check it out here.
In September, during a private meeting at the state department, I expressed frustration about the US allowing Saudi Arabia to spread its toxic Wahhabi ideology, which serves as a primary inspiration for Salafi jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, around the world. Before I could finish, a senior level official in the department of near eastern affairs interrupted me to defend the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabia isn’t exporting terrorism, they’re exporting religion and we can’t get into the business of policing religion. It’s a free speech issue,” said the official. “The Saudis are a very important geostrategic ally. And they are changing. They’ve worked very hard to reform their textbooks,” the official added.
The official then brought up the jihadist textbooks printed by the US and disseminated to Afghan school children in refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s. The textbooks encouraged violence against infidels, communists and the Soviet Union in the name of Islam and helped inculcate an entire generation. These US-printed textbooks can still be found in in Taliban-run schools today.
The senior state department official insisted that in the end printing them was “worth it” because “we got rid of the Soviet Union.”
The official’s response was reminiscent of former US National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the architects of the US policy to arm the Afghan mujahedeen. Asked in 1998 if he regretted supporting Islamic fundamentalists, Brzezinski replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
This sort of thinking continues to dominate the foreign policy establishment’s approach to the region with ever more disastrous consequences.
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Hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola kick off a new season of the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast with guest Abby Martin, host of “The Empire Files.” She joins the show for the entire episode. Martin discusses how a show she anchored for RT America was mentioned in the recent intelligence report on Russian hacking.
We discuss the deep state’s push to increase aggressive action against Russia, and whether that is good if we all truly believe Donald Trump is erratic. We talk about where RT America fits in the media landscape and how we need to focus on media literacy. And we talk about liberal delusions about America’s history of meddling in democracies and supporting dictatorships because Trump will not be the first president to normalize this — at all.
To listen to the podcast episode, go here. The episode can also be downloaded from iTunes.
I’ve been reading through old coverage of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the US armed the religious extremists of the mujahideen against the Soviets. The parallels to the biased coverage of the war in Syria are striking, especially with regard to the romanticization of Islamist rebels. Many of the journalistic shortcomings documented in this New York Times article from 1990 are found in today’s biased reporting on Syria:
From 1980 until late 1986, few American journalists were allowed to visit Kabul or any other Government-held area, which meant that coverage of the war was left primarily to reporters working from the rebel side. Those venturing into the war zones carried back powerful accounts of the rebels’ struggle, and of the destructiveness of the forces they faced. But it was inevitable that over the years, what Americans learned of the conflict came increasingly to reflect the rebel viewpoint; whatever balance access to the other side would have offered was lost.
In addition, much of the Afghan reporting available to Americans came from resident freelancers, many of them relatively inexperienced. The result was that strong bonds often developed between those covering the conflict and the rebels. Many of the reporters became identified with a particular rebel group, usually the one that arranged their journeys ”inside.” Too often, abuses by these groups went unreported, or at least underplayed.
In Peshawar’s American Club, reporters skeptical of an approach that celebrated the rebels’ virtues encountered ostracism. One visitor, Mary Williams Walsh of The Wall Street Journal, had her entry to the club ”suspended” after reporting sardonically on the rebel boosterism she found. Later, after The New York Post ran a series of stories alleging that the CBS Evening News had used faked film footage in some of its reporting on rebel attacks, Ms. Walsh, who had done much of the initial reporting on that story, became a focus for renewed hostility. When in the fall of 1989 word of her departure from the Journal reached the American Club, some of the freelancers involved called for drinks all round.
Such attitudes did not encourage evenhanded reporting. Little attention was given, for example, to the involvement of rebel commanders in the opium traffic, though it had been known in Peshawar for years. Nor, until his murderous attacks on other rebel groups attracted Washington’s condemnation in 1989, did the Peshawar-based reporters – or American diplomats – pay much attention to the sinister nature of Mr. Hekmatyar, the dominant figure among the rebel leaders and the recipient, for years, of the lion’s share of American money and weapons. But stories had long circulated in Kabul and Peshawar of how, as a Kabul student leader during the early 1970’s, he had dispatched followers to throw vials of acid into the faces of women students who refused to wear veils.
Such selective reporting extended to the war itself. When in November 1988 the rebels executed more than 70 Government officers and men after they had surrendered at Torkham, the story was missed by many Peshawar-based American reporters. And there was little coverage in the United States, either, of massacres that occured in areas taken by the rebels, not even when Western human-rights groups offered well-documented accounts, as they did after the rebels engaged in a frenzy of rape and pillage in Kunduz in late 1988.